Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Teapot is Smithsonian’s millionth digitized object

Monday, June 27th, 2016

A teapot made by 19th century silversmith Peter Bentzon is the one millionth object digitized by the Smithsonian’s Mass Digitization Program. There are 154 million objects in the many collections of the Smithsonian Institute, so just 153 million more to go.

Peter Bentzon was born on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies around 1783. The child of a free mulatto woman and a white father, he was what the Danish categorized as a “mustice” or “mustee.” His family was comparatively well-off; it is believed his father was Norwegian lawyer Jacob Bentzon who was a royal judge advocate on St Thomas for several years. Peter was sent to school in Philadelphia when he was eight years old, and was apprenticed to a Philadelphia silversmith in 1799 when he was 16. His completed his apprenticeship in 1806 and moved to Christiansted, St Croix, where he started his own silversmithing business.

The British occupied the island from 1807 to 1816 which was advantageous for Bentzon because the British didn’t have the strict laws the Danish had controlling the movements, professions and political rights of the free coloured population of its colonies. Denmark reclaimed St Croix in 1816 and Bentzon made arrangements to move his family and business back to Philly. He lived and worked there until 1829, after which he returned to St. Croix for another 20 years. He relocated to Philadelphia again in 1848. His name is on the 1850 Census. After that, he disappears from the historical record. Wherever he was living, he regularly traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and St Croix.

Bentzon was the only free silversmith of African descent in slavery-era America whose work can be identified from his hallmarks, P. BENTZON and PB. There were at least four other black silversmiths in Philadelphia during his time. Henry Bray and Anthony Sowerwalt are listed as silversmiths and “persons of color” in the 1813 and 1818 Philadelphia directories. Joseph Head and John Frances, a runaway slave, were also working as silversmiths. None of the four produced work under their own hallmark, however, so it’s impossible to link any surviving silver to them.

Very few of Bentzon’s pieces are known to have survived, fewer than three dozen, most of them teaspoons. That makes his work rarer than that of famed fellow silversmiths like Paul Revere and Thomas Fletcher. The Smithsonian’s teapot is the only one confirmed to have been made in Bentzon’s Philadelphia shop.

The silver teapot is an oval vase-shape on a pedestal foot. The scroll handle is made of wood topped with a leaf design. The cover has an acorn finial. It is stamped twice on the bottom with Bentzon’s mark and is inscribed “Rebecca Dawson” on the base. Bentzon rented his workshop from a Robert Dawson, so perhaps Rebecca was a relative of his landlord. The monogram “MC” on the side is a later addition.

It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) which isn’t an actual museum yet. There had been efforts to create a national museum displaying art and artifacts from African-American history since 1915, but with little funding and no Congressional support, proposals went nowhere. A state initiative was more successful. The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, received a federal charter from Congress in 1981 and opened in 1988 with no public funding. Its focus was more narrow than that envisioned for the national museum, however, with its main exhibition dedicated to the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and others featuring the city of Wilberforce’s history an important stop on the Underground Railroad and the founding of historically black college Wilberforce University, the first college in the United States that was owned and run by African Americans.

The Smithsonian’s collection of African-Americana didn’t see much light until dedicated exhibitions in the National Museum of American History in the 1980s. For a long time the Board of the Smithsonian itself questioned whether the collection could sustain a stand-alone African-American history museum, and it wasn’t until December of 2003 that all the pieces came together with the passage of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act establishing the new museum within the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It took another three years for the site, part of the Washington Monument grounds, to be selected. Settling on a design for the building took even more time. Finally, ground was broken on February 22nd, 2012.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian took the innovative step of creating a virtual museum when the physical museum was still years away from construction. It created a website for the NMAAHC with select objects from the collection and online exhibitions. The first exhibition in the three dimensional world took place in New York in 2005. In 2012 the NMAAHC partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to put on an exhibition about slavery at Monticello held at the National Museum of American History.

By 2015, the museum’s collection had grown to more than 33,000 objects including Louis Armstrong’s 1946 Selmer trumpet, 39 extremely rare Harriet Tubman artifacts donated in 2012 by collector Charles L. Blockson, Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, a 1922 Pullman railroad car from Chattanooga, Tennessee, used to carry Black passengers under Jim Crow segregation and a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary which was is big the museum had to be build around it.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will opens its doors in the new building on September 24th, 2016.

Exhibition marks 350th anniversary of Great Fire of London

Friday, June 24th, 2016

The Great Fire of London broke out in the wee hours of September 2nd, 1666, and raged for three days, leveling the old city within the Roman walls, a quarter of London, and destroying more than 13,000 homes, St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and London Bridge. The Museum of London will mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration with a new exhibition, Fire! Fire!, which will showcase life in the city before the fire, the events of the fire itself and how London recovered.

The museum will display period art and artifacts in its collection that illustrate the devastating fury of the fire. Some, like burned and melted pottery fragments from a shop on Pudding Lane near where the fire first sparked, have been on display before. Others have never been seen in public before, for example a ceramic roof tile melted and bent in half by temperatures of at least 1500 Celsius and a singled floor tile, burned iron padlocks and keys found at Monument House on Botolph Lane, one street down from Pudding Lane. Another piece on display for the first time is an unfinished needlework panel believed to have been saved from a house in Cheapside during the fire.

There are also two letters written by eye witnesses, one from James Hicks, a post office employee whose office burned down just after 1:00 AM on September 3rd. He fled with his family taking as many letters as he could with them. His letter informed postmasters of the destruction. The other letter was from Robert Flatman to his brother Thomas who worked in the city as a barrister but was out of town for the Great Fire. In the letter of September 9th, 1666, Robert told his brother that he had saved his books from his chamber in one of the Temples (professional associations where barristers kept their offices and lodgings).

In 1666, much of the City of London was little changed from the Middle Ages, a warren of cobblestone alleys tightly packed with crowded timber tenement buildings whose upper storeys jutted over the street to maximize precious square footage. By the mid-17th century the overhanging jetties projected so far over the alleyways that they kissed the jetties from buildings across the street, which made fire very easy to spread and practically impossible to stop. When the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, it quickly jumped from building to building and soon formed an implacable wall of flame too hot for people to even attempt to counter. Perhaps controlled demolition of structures forming a firebreak perimeter could have contained it, but Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth didn’t order those until the fire had burned all night and day.

What little firefighting equipment existed was small-scale and ineffective: tall ladders, leather buckets of water and squirt guns that look like large syringes could douse a building fire when deployed quickly, but once fire spread these tools couldn’t keep up. Long firehooks were used to pull down buildings, and when the buildings were too high for that, controlled demolition by gunpowder might do the trick. Once the fire was raging, it was too hot and fast for these methods to work. Once the Thames waterfront was on fire, the city’s supply of water was cut off.

Early fire engines carried barrels of water to a fire and pumped it out, but they delivered a comparatively meager stream of water, and that’s assuming they could even make it down the winding alleys of the City of London. Some were on sleds, other on wheels. The Museum of London has a very rare surviving 17th century fire engine which it acquired in 1928. It has been on display, but since all that remains in the central barrel and pump, it just looks like a wooden keg with an iron tap sticking out the top.

For the new exhibition, the museum employed Croford Coachbuilders in Kent to reconstruct the vehicle that carried the barrel and pump. They used traditional methods, tools and material to recreate the carriage. With no plans to go by, the coachbuilders used a 19th century photograph located by museum curators of the engine from when it was still complete with undercarriage, tow bar and pumping arms. Curators also found a print showing the fire engine, designed by John Keeling in London around 1678, in action, which helped the craftsmen replicate the original.

This video documents the construction process. It’s a fascinating summary which I wish were longer. My favorite part is when they take the completed wheel made of three different kinds of woods — elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, ash for the felloes (the part that goes around the spokes) — and fit the iron rim onto it. The rim has to be slightly smaller than the wheel to keep it all together, so they heat that bad boy up so it expands, slap it on the wheel, then quickly dump cold water on it to keep the hot iron from burning the wood and to force the iron to contract around the wheel. It’s smoke-filled awesomeness.

Fire! Fire! opens on July 23rd, 2016, and runs through April 17th, 2017.

La Belle restoration complete

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

After 17 years, restoration of the hull of La Belle, one of four ships that carried French explorer René-Robert de La Salle and 300 would-be colonists on his mission to the Gulf of Mexico, is finally complete.

La Belle was a 54-foot frigate that could navigate open ocean but was had a shallow enough draft that it could hand coastal and river waters as well, an essential design for this trip since La Salle’s aim was to found a colony in the Mississippi River Delta. Their poor maps of the Gulf sent the explorers way off course. When his main storeship, L’Aimable, ran aground, La Salle was compelled to transfer as much of her contents as he could salvage to La Belle, so when a storm claimed her too off the coast in Matagorda Bay, 400 miles west of the Mississippi Delta, in 1686, she sank with a disproportionately huge complement of artifacts and supplies.

That gave the Texas Historical Commission archaeologists who discovered the wreck in 1995 a lot of work to do. They built a double-walled cofferdam around the wreck, pumped out the water and from September of 1996 to April of 1997, excavated the surviving bottom third of the ship’s oak hull. By the end of the excavation they had recovered nearly 1.6 million objects — barrels of gunpowder, weaponry, personal items, cookware, crates full of trade geegaws (brass rings, pins, hundreds of thousands of glass beads).

The hull was sent to Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program where the timbers were soaked in a bath of polyethylene glycol (PEG) solution, a petroleum-based polymer that replaces the water in wood to keep it from warping, cracking or shrinking when it dries, for 10 years. When the high price of oil made the use of PEG prohibitively expensive, conservators put the timbers in the largest archaeological freeze-dryer in the world. After four years in the freezer, in the summer of 2014 La Belle‘s timbers were transported to the o the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. There they were reassembled in a side gallery where the process could be viewed by the public.

In May of 2015, reassembling of the timbers was complete and the entire hull was moved to the main gallery of the museum, its final resting place after 20 years of upheaval. While the hull timbers were back together again, the restoration wasn’t finished yet. The were gaps that needed to be closed and additional surviving sections of the hull added to the structure. While conservators were working on that, the main gallery was refurbished around the ship’s hull to create the permanent exhibition that would fully showcase La Belle and its many artifacts.

The restoration is now complete and the ship positioned at a 21-degree angle, just as it was on the sea floor when archaeologists excavated it. The temporary exhibition La Belle: The Ship That Changed History, is ongoing now. The permanent exhibition is scheduled to open in November, after which some of the artifacts from the wreck will become part of a traveling exhibition that will visit several locations in the United States and France, which is still the legal owner of La Belle and everything on it.

Cygan is back! Eric will be. What about Kaiser?

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

The imposing 1950s robot Cygan has been restored to his former dapper rakishness and is going on display next year at the Science Museum in London as part of its Robots exhibition which brings more than 100 historic and contemporary robots to the museum. Cygan is one 12 working robots who will be on display, his nearly eight-foot height, powerful pincer hands and renewed shiny good looks will be put to use smashing things and lifting other things for the delight of visitors, just like in the old days. No word on whether he’ll be picking up showgirls in each arm.

When last we saw Cygan, he was about to be sold at auction and there was an attempt to secure him for the city of Leeds as robot in residence. The attempt was not successful and on September 5th, 2013, Cygan sold to American collector Jerry Wallace for £17,500 ($27,300). Mr. Wallace intended to restore the gentle giant, and when I checked in with him a year later, he told me via email that Cygan’s condition was dire. They had to strip him down to his skeleton to remove all the rust, corroded metal, bad screws and everything else that had gone wrong in his many long years of being exposed to the elements. Wallace’s team sandblasted the skeleton and repainted it with rust-proof paint. The motors all needed to be replaced. Then they created a wireless remote system to automate his various movements. The exterior was cleaned and repaired, but the restorers left it original.

If you’d like to hang with Cygan, you don’t have to wait until next year. He’s already out and about in the Science Museum. Meanwhile, roboticist Giles Walker will be bringing another grand old mechanical man back to life: Eric, built by Captain W. H. Richards & A.H. Reffell in 1928 and billed as the UK’s first robot. Eric was a showman too, with an aluminium plated body, light bulbs for eyes and an electrical charge that would shoot blue sparks from his teeth.

He made his debut on September 20th, 1928, at the Society of Model Engineers’ annual exhibition where he was a big hit. He traveled all over the UK, to the continent and the United States where he was roundly beloved, before disappearing without a trace. Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, Eric will be rebuilt. We have the technology. What we don’t have is a lot of information about how he was made. His creators kept their secrets close to their chests, so all we have to go on is a few stories in the press of the period and a few relevant papers curators were able to secure from descendants of Richards and Reffell. Between those archives, period photographs and films and a little deductive reasoning, Walker will make if not an exact replica, a pretty damn close approximation of the original Eric for the Robots Exhibition.

Does Eric really deserve the title of the UK’s first robot, though? New Zealand inventor Captain Alban Joseph Roberts had a robot skating the streets of London eight years before Eric was a twinkle in Captain Richards’ eye. Robot aficionado and researcher par excellence Reuben Hoggett of Cyberneticzoo has has the scoop about him (and about Eric, for that matter). Roberts created an automaton named Kaiser who he controlled by remote control light waves. Unlike Eric who was fixed to the power box under his feet, Kaiser could walk, or glide, and he didn’t need to carry a giant battery box to do it.

Here’s a 1920 Pathe’ newsreel of Kaiser rolling around and opening his arms with his stylish headdress and cape.

Roberts had an eclectic approach to invention. An expert in electricity who ran the municipal electrical utility in Patea, New Zealand, when he was 24 years old, he would go on to experiment with remote control flight, both vessels (dirigibles, cars, ships) and devices (marine and aerial torpedoes). In 1912, he held a demonstration of a remote-controlled model dirigible 10 feet long which he made fly around the Lyceum Theater in Sydney and drop a toy bomb on the precise spot indicated by an audience member, a proto-drone, basically. Scientific American called him “the Edison of Australia,” an intended compliment foiled by the fact that Roberts was from New Zealand.

He also worked on vehicles flying and terrestrial controlled by sound and light. In 1916, he created a resonator that could operate a model aircraft with sound (Sci Am article about it page one, page two). In 1920, the same year he took Kaiser for its first spin, he operated a driverless car with a whistle. The newspaper account of the demonstration presciently explained the significance of Roberts’ invention: “it may mean that before long we shall be able to explode a mine or fire a battery in Constantinople by pressing a button in London.” Again in 1920, as if he wasn’t busy enough that year, he also took a turn to the whimsical when he demonstrated a synesthesia machine that translated the tones of the human voice into different colors.

In a move that Cygan would later copy with gusto, Roberts spent the 1920s on the vaudeville circuit, first with light and sound control demos, then operating a second robot of his invention that trundled around on a wheeled base and could move its mouth as if speaking. It didn’t have Kaiser’s legs, though. The electronics in its base were covered by an Arabian costume. You can see Roberts demonstrate it on the streets of London on January 1st, 1928, in this newsreel. (They attribute the demonstration to the magician Jasper Maskelyne, but it’s Roberts, who was a part of his show, operating the remote.)

Captain Roberts moved from inventing potential wonders of the world to show business to plain ol’ business. He died in 1950 with much of his early genius forgotten.

So was Eric the UK’s first robot? I’m not sure what criteria the Science Museum is using, but even if you disqualify the Arabian fellow because it doesn’t have the tin man form with functioning legs and arms, Kaiser still has Eric beat by close to a decade. The only leg they have to stand on is that Eric was called a “robot” (the R.U.R. on his chest stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, after a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek which introduced the word “robot” to the English language), while Kaiser was called an automaton, but that’s a shaky leg. The Robots exhibition includes automata going back to the 16th century, after all.

Denmark’s heaviest hoard of Viking gold found in Jutland

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Three metal detectorists have discovered a group of bangles which add up to the greatest amount of Viking gold ever found in Denmark. Last week Marie Aagaard Larsen, her husband Christian Nedergaard Dreiøe and their friend Poul Nørgaard, aka Team Rainbow Power, were scanning a field in Vejen, south Jutland, where a gold chain from the Viking era had been discovered in 1911. Ten minutes after they started, Poul struck gold. They unearthed a gold bangle that they recognized was old, but it was bigger than anything quite they’d encountered before.

Team Rainbow Power emailed a photograph of the artifact to the Museum Sønderskov in nearby Brørup. Curator and archaeologist Lars Grundvad was amazed to see what they’d found. He and his colleagues had discussed returning to that field to explore it further because of the gold chain weighing 67 grams that had been unearthed there in 1911, but in his wildest dreams he hadn’t imagined there would be multiple finds of such quality and size.

Within 15 minutes, they found another gold piece. Then they found another. In the final tally, Team Rainbow Power discovered six gold and one silver bangle. The total weight of the gold bangles is 900 grams, just shy of two pounds. The previous record holder for the greatest amount of gold from a Viking treasure was the hoard found in Vester Vedsted, Southwest Jutland, in 1859. That hoard contained two gold neck rings, five gold bangles, a fragment of gold chain, two filigree pendants and two gold beads which totalled 750 grams. The Vejen find beats it by a lot in just six bangles, which goes to show just how big these pieces are. The sole silver bangle is a hefty one too at 90 grams (3.17 ounces). The bangles were likely buried together with the previously unearthed chain in the 10th century.

It’s not unusual for objects from the same hoard to be found at different times, even a century apart. Buried hoards could be broken up and scattered over a wide area by centuries of agricultural activity, and since metal detectors only began to be used in Denmark in the 1980s, even archaeological excavations were unlikely to find every artifact.

“Finding just one of these bangles is massive, so finding seven is something very special,” said Peter Pentz, a Viking expert and curator from the National Museum of Denmark.

Pentz went on to explain that silver was the most used metal during the Viking Age, which makes the golden find even more audacious.

One of the gold pieces is decorated in the stylized animal figures characteristic of the Jelling style, as is the chain discovered in 1911. The Jelling style in particular is associated with the elite of Viking society and considering the richness of the find, the Vejen area was likely home to a person of great wealth and position. The bangles could have been gifts for allies, rewards for his best men or oath rings. The style also helps date the hoard because it was in vogue for a short period from the first half of the 10th century until the year 1000 when it disappears from the archaeological record.

The precise location of the find is being kept secret for now as Team Rainbow Power, in collaboration with the Museum Sønderskov, is still searching the field. Lars Grundvad is working on raising funds now for a full archaeological investigation of the find site to take place as early as this fall. The museum hopes to display the finds before they are transferred to the National Museum in Copenhagen, where they will be studied and evaluated as treasure trove. Team Rainbow Power will receive treasure trove compensation based on the National Museum’s assessment.

Restored 6th c. purple gospels return home

Friday, June 17th, 2016

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is a 6th century Greek manuscript written in uncial script (upper case script with rounded letters in use from the 4th-8th centuries) that contains the gospel of Matthew, most of the gospel of Mark (verses 14-20 of chapter 16 are missing) and the Epistula ad Carpianum (a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea, the “Father of Church History,” to Carpianus on the concordance of the four gospels). Because of the letter and an illumination of all four evangelists, scholars believe the 188-page codex was originally more than double the size and included all four gospels. It’s not certain where it was written. Comparisons with other manuscripts suggest Antioch is a possibility, as is Byzantium.

It is one of several surviving manuscripts of the New Testament known as the Purple Uncials or Purple Codices after their reddish or purple pages. The vellum was dyed the royal color and the text written in silver and gold ink. St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate, the first comprehensive translation of most of the Bible into Latin, defended himself against charges that he was rejecting the authority of the Greek writers of the Septuagint in his translation by dismissing the purple codices as pretty but inaccurate.

“Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.”

For them to have been held up as examples of old-fashioned scholarship, the purple Bibles must have been widespread in Christian theological circles when Jerome wrote that in 394 A.D.

Most of the surviving Codices Purpurei date to the 6th century, but there are examples as early as the 4th or 5th century (Codex Vercellensis Evangeliorum,
Codex Veronensis, Codex Palatinus) and as late as the 9th century (Minuscule 565, Minuscule 1143). There are Purple Codices written in Greek and Latin, and one in Gothic (Codex Argenteus). They were created in numerous place within the Roman’s former sphere of influence, from Syria to Anglo-Saxon England to Byzantine Greece.

The Rossano Codex is particularly notable for its 14 illuminations depicting the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s one of the earliest surviving illuminated gospels and contains two of the first and most significant representations of Pontius Pilate. He’s depicted as a white-haired judge seated on a curule chair, a symbol of Roman political power because only magistrates were allowed to sit on them. Only one other purpureous codex from the 6th century, the Vienna Genesis, is illuminated, and it’s a fragment of the Septuagint, specifically the Book of Genesis, so no Jesus or Pilate. Images include the above-mentioned four evangelists, Lazarus being raised from the dead, the entry into Jerusalem, the parable of the ten virgins, the Last Supper (in which Jesus and Peter recline to dine) and washing of the feet, Jesus healing the blind man, the Good Samaritan, the suicide of Judas and the Pilate scenes.

It was first brought to light by poet, literary critic and journalist Cesare Malpica in 1846, but the first to track it down to the sacristy of the cathedral of Rossano, Calabria, in southern Italy, and study it with scientific rigour were German theologians Adolf von Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt published it internationally to great scholarly acclaim in 1879.

The manuscript has suffered many centuries of dismemberment, arduous travel, fire and a botched restoration in 1919 which applied hot jelly to the illuminated vellum leaves causing them to turn transparent. Alarmed by its deteriorating condition, the Rossano archdiocese enlisted the aid of Rome’s Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL). From 2012 until 2015, ICRCPAL conservators worked with chemists, physicists, biologists and the latest technology to analyze and repair the Codex. There’s a nice selection of photos of the Codex and its restoration on the project website. They’re small, sadly.

In 2015 was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage. Now that the restoration is complete, the Codex will return to the Diocesan Museum where it is the featured exhibit. Three newly renovated galleries are dedicated to the manuscript: one to display the Codex itself, one in which a documentary film about the work is played, one dedicated to the restoration. A new climate-controlled, continuously monitored display case will house the fragile document. The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis goes back on display on July 2nd.

Long-lost Neolithic figurine found in Orkney museum

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

I don’t know why stories sometimes form little geographical clusters, but it seems to happen fairly regularly. Last month it was Denmark and now it’s Scotland. Today’s Scottish report comes to us from the Stromness Museum which has rediscovered a highly significant Neolithic figurine that was undocumented and unrecognized its collection for almost a century.

It’s an anthropomorphic figurine 9.5cm (3.7 inches) high and 7.5cm (3 inches) wide carved out of whale bone. Holes were carved to indicate eyes, a mouth and a navel. There are also holes carved through the sides of the head and body, possibly used to hang it as a pendant. The figurine was discovered in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney, in the 1860s. Skara Brae is the most complete Neolithic village in Europe with eight dwellings clustered together. was found in the stone bed compartment of Skara Brae’s House 3, a structure that stratigraphically and from radiocarbon testing of the context to between 2900 and 2400 B.C., so the figurine is about 5,000 or 4,500 years old. It is one of only a handful of prehistoric representations of humans discovered in Britain. It was the first one found and the only one made of whale bone.

The figurine was found by William Watt, Laird of Skaill House and owner of the property, who had discovered the site in 1850 when a storm exposed stone walls and a midden previously hidden under drift sand. Watt excavated the entire site with occasional visits from other amateur archaeologists James Farrer and George Petrie. The only existing documentation of the figurine is in Petrie’s 1867 report (pdf) in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on the Skara Brae settlement and its artifacts. He described it as a “small piece of Whalebone, cut as if intended for an idol or ‘Fetish.’” Petrie also made a sketch of it in his notebook.

The historical significance of the piece wasn’t recognized at the time. The artifact was assumed to be in the private museum Watt created at Skaill House, but there was no record of it. When the collection was broken up in the 1930s and distributed to various museums including the Stromness Museum, the figurine appeared in none of the inventories. It was believed lost forever.

The figurine was rediscovered by Dr. David Clarke who was going through Stromness Museum’s Skaill House artifacts as part of a research project on Skara Brae. None of the Skaill pieces included a provenance, so Dr. Clarke had to look through the entire collection for anything that might have come from Skara Brae. When he saw that little face peering out of a bed of tissue in the last box of the day, he immediately recognized it from Petrie’s illustration.

Additional research by Clarke and museum experts confirmed the identification and its original find spot. The figurine has been given a new name, Skara Brae Buddo (“buddo” is the Orcadian word for “friend”), and is now on display in the Stromness Museum’s new Rediscovered exhibition along with other artifacts from Skara Brae that have never been on display before.

You can explore Skara Brae Buddo’s amiable mien in this 3D model created by Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Skara Brae 'Buddo' Figurine, Orkney
by Stromness Museum
on Sketchfab

The rediscovery of a Pictish silver hoard

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

In 1838, a Pictish hoard of silver was unearthed on the grounds of Ley Farm near Fordyce, Aberdeenshire. Two prehistoric stone circles, Gaulcross North and Gaulcross South, were located a few hundred yards from the farmhouse, and the hoard was discovered a few feet south of the north circle. Maybe. Found by labourers clearing the land for agricultural use by the new tenant, the silver pieces were poorly documented at the time. The precise find spot was not recorded, nor were the pieces themselves. There were vague, conflicting accounts of what was found. Some said a silver chain four feet long, assorted buckles, pins and brooches; others reported just a silver chain, pin and armlet. The stone circles were all but destroyed during the brutal clearing process (dynamite was involved), leaving just one stone standing by 1867 when the first account of the hoard was written by John Stuart. He said the artifacts were buried inside the stone circle.

The fate of whatever pieces were found was also unclear. The property owner, Sir Robert Abercromby, 5th Baronet of Birkenbog, was said to have kept the hoard. He was also said to have given some pieces to the Banff Museum (his maternal grandfather was Alexander Ogilvie, 7th Lord Banff) in Aberdeenshire or to the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh. The three surviving pieces of silver were in fact at the Banff for a while. They are now at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In 2013, the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts project and National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project combined their efforts to investigate the site in the hopes of finding out more (anything, really) about the context of the original Gaulcross Hoard. Since they didn’t know exactly where the first pieces of the hoard had been found in the 19th century, the team had to cover a great deal of ground. A geophysical survey of the site was followed by metal detector enthusiasts scanning the Gaulcross site.

Archaeologists expected to find no more than a few fragments of silver here and there, just enough to pinpoint the find site, but on the second day metal detectorist Alistair McPherson found three Roman silver siliquae (a type of 4th century Roman silver coin that was widely cut up for use in the 5th century when fresh Roman currency was no longer imported into Britain), pieces of folded hacksilver, the endpiece of a silver strap and a silver bracelet fragment. With the tantalizing prospect of greater finds than they had expected and the daunting prospect of the field being ploughed and planted soon, the team got cracking with metal detectors and two trenches.

They ultimately unearthed more than 100 pieces of hacksilver chopped up from Roman and Pictish coins, jewelry, dishes, flatware, between the 4th and 6th centuries. It is the northernmost hoard of pre-Viking hacksilver ever discovered. The finds also included intact artifacts: a crescent-shaped pendant with double-loops at each end, a double-link chain, and two silver hemispheres that may have originally been part of a single piece.

Compared to other two other hacksilver hoards found in Scotland — the Traprain Law hoard and the Norrie’s Law hoard — the discovery of so much material left in the ground after the 1838 find gave researchers new insight into the evolution of silver in Scotland since its introduction during the Roman era.

Silver was not mined in Scotland during this period, instead it had its origins in the Hacksilber from the late Roman world, as exemplified by the Traprain Law hoard. The differing compositions of individual objects in the three Scottish Hacksilber hoards will show how, through time, late Roman silver was recycled and re-cast into high-status objects that underpinned the development of elite society in the post-Roman period. During the process of recycling, the Roman silver was remade into new objects, but its origin may not have been entirely forgotten. Some of these later objects may have also directly referenced the late antique world, with items such as hand-pins showing the adaptation of late Roman military styles, both in terms of design and decorative techniques. As Gavin notes, the use of Roman models may have been intended to evoke military prowess and ostentation amongst elites in early medieval Britain and Ireland.

You can read the full report of the investigation and discoveries in the journal Antiquity.

Wrecked Piombo masterpiece restored

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

The University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum has restored a 16th century painting by Sebastiano del Piombo that has been in dire condition for centuries. The restoration took a full decade of research and painstaking work by conservators at the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute to complete.

Sebastiano Luciani (he got the “del Piombo” moniker after his appointment to the Papal office of the leaden seal in 1531) was born in Venice around 1485. He started off his career in the arts as a lute player and while he was successful at a young age and very much in demand by the nobles of Venice, he soon changed course to painting, becoming a student first of Giovanni Bellini, who was by then in his 70s, and then of Giorgione a former pupil of Bellini’s who while still in his 20s had already made a name for himself and won several important commissions. Giorgione had a strong influence on the young Sebastiano, and indeed more than one of his early works were believed for centuries to be pieces by Giorgione.

In around 1511, Sebastiano moved to Rome at the behest of the powerful Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. There he met Michelangelo who had just revealed the first part of his epic fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when Sebastiano arrived. Sebastiano was a congenial, charming fellow, enough to get along with Michelangelo who was notoriously prickly. According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo appreciated the young artist’s color skills and the gracefulness of his work and decided to take him under his wing.

Shortly after he arrived in Rome, Sebastiano painted the Adoration of the Shepherds for an unknown patron. The influence of Giorgione and the Venetian school is seen in the color palette and in the landscape of the painting (see for example Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds painted around the same time that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.), while the dynamic, animated figures show the influence of Michelangelo.

The painting first appears on the historical record in 1724 as part of the collection of the Duke of Orléans. It was attributed to Giorgione at that time, and still was in 1800 when museum founder Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam bought it at the sale of the Duke of Orléans’ collection in London after the French Revolution. The painting was part of the original bequest to his alma mater the University of Cambridge that created the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816. It was only in 1913 that scholars attributed the Adoration of the Shepherds to Sebastiano del Piombo based on the fusion of Venetian and Roman elements that was characteristic of the artist’s work.

The painting has been in storage for 70 years because it was considered undisplayable in its condition. It was marred by thick layers of overpainting and X-rays and infrared imaging had shown that the original paint underneath was severely damaged. There was much discussion about whether conservation should even be attempted on so precarious a piece. Ten years ago, conservators at the Hamilton Kerr Institute began to seriously investigate the possibility of restoring the work. Sebastiano was a very slow painter and once he got the leaden seal job he was even slower. Most of his surviving works are portraits. A large religious piece by him is a rarity. Ultimately conservators decided that the overpainting was so atrocious, so far from the original in color and design, and enough of the critical areas of the original survived that it was worth tackling, even though it would require filling in significant areas of paint loss.

Here’s what it looked like before cleaning:

When the layers of overpaint and yellowed varnish were removed, conservators could see right away that the damage to the painting was not the result of the mere passage of time. It was caused by a botched transfer from original wood panel to canvas, probably when the Adoration was in the collection of the Duke of Orleans. Such transfers were considered a valid conservation approach at that time, particularly in the France, but they were hugely risky. On smaller works the painted surface was shaved off and applied to canvas. On larger pieces, a fabric facing was glued to the surface then either the wood was removed by carving or a corrosive until all that was left was the paint stuck to the facing. Canvas was then glued to the back and the facing carefully removed. Sometimes it worked and the painted surface adhered to the canvas. Sometimes it went horribly wrong and a precipitous amount of paint was lost.

Here’s what it looked like after the overpaint and varnish were removed:

Since the owner wanted his Old Master back on the wall, the damage was obscured by repainting. When that began to fail it was repainted again, lather, rinse, repeat. The botched transfer took place around 1750. Before the tragic events, a copy of the painting when it was still on panel was made. That copy is now in the Louvre. Without this copy, conservators would likely never have attempted this restoration because filling in the missing paint would have required too much guess work to be decently accurate. Thankfully, the original paint that survived the transfer proved resilient, tough enough to withstand the removal of multiple layers of overpainting.

In order to understand the artist’s technique, a microscopic particle of paint, smaller than the head of a pin, was taken from the Virgin’s blue robe and analysed under a microscope during research. Examination of the paint cross-section demonstrated Sebastiano’s sophisticated system of layering with an application of pink paint beneath the blue, as well as his use of superior and expensive pigments, such as ultramarine blue. This and other forms of state-of-the-art analysis greatly helped to reconstruct the missing areas. [...]

[Director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute] Rupert Featherstone added, “We have conserved over 3,000 pictures in the last forty years at the HKI, but the Sebastiano is one of our biggest projects. Some might have argued to leave the painting as an archaeological relic, but I think we have made the right judgement to restore it so it can be appreciated as the masterpiece it is, aesthetically and historically. The scientific research that was conducted to aid our understanding of the technique of the artist has been key in being able to recreate it.”

Here’s what it looks like now:

The restored Adoration of the Shepherds is the Fitzwilliam’s “Object of the Month” for June and is now on display in the museum’s Flower Gallery.

Britain’s oldest written document found in London

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The Museum of London Archaeology’s excavation of the site of Bloomberg’s future European headquarters in central London has proven to be an even richer archaeological motherlode than we knew. Thanks to its proximity to the Thames and the waterlogged embrace of the lost Walbrook River, organic remains from the earliest days of Roman London through the 5th century were preserved in exceptional condition: entire streets, hundreds of shoes, a cavalry harness and the largest collection of fist and phallus amulets ever found. When the story broke in 2013, archaeologists had unearthed more than 100 fragments of writing tablets. That was just the beginning. In the final tally, a total of 405 wood writing tablets were found during the Bloomberg Place excavation. Only 19 tablets were discovered in London before this.

These wooden tablets were the notepads of the Roman world. Coated in a layer of blackened beeswax, the writing was scratched on the surface with a stylus, usually in cursive Latin. They were used for correspondence, contracts, financial records, school lessons, anything else that needed writing down. While the beeswax is long gone, the impression of the writing sometimes marked the wood making it possible to read the tablets. Possible, but far from easy. High resolution photography with raking light and microscopic analysis can reveal the faint markings. Even when visible, cursive Latin is no picnic to read. Cursive Latin expert Dr. Roger Tomlin was enlisted to crack the tablet code, which is very much how he sees the work.

“The Bloomberg writing tablets are very important for the early history of Roman Britain, and London in particular. I am so lucky to be the first to read them again, after more than nineteen centuries, and to imagine what these people were like, who founded the new city of London. What a privilege to eavesdrop on them: when I decipher their handwriting, I think of my own heroes, the wartime academics who worked at Bletchley Park.”

Out of the 405 tablets, 87 have been deciphered thus far, more than quadrupling the known letters from Roman London and shedding new light on the early decades of the city.

More than 1,300 wooden writing tablets have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland just south of Hadrian’s Wall, most of them letters to and from the soldiers stationed there, but the earliest date to 85 AD when the first timber fort was built. The earliest of the Bloomberg tablets to include a date is a financial transaction from January 8th, 57 A.D. It reads:

“In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…”


It’s the oldest intrinsically dated writing in Britain and the earliest legal document. It was written less than 14 years after the conquest and three years before the Boudiccan revolt.

Another tablet is even older although its author didn’t do us the favor of dating it for us. It was stratigraphically dated to 43-53 AD, the first decade after the Roman conquest of Britain. There’s also the first written reference to Roman London, a tablet from 65-80 AD addressed to Londinio Mogontio, meaning Mogontius in London. (Mogontio only pawn in game of life.) The next reference would come 50 years later in Tactitus’ Annals 14.33 where he describes the Boudiccan revolt.


Speaking of which, one of the tablets illuminates how quickly the city of London recovered from the devastation of the insurrection. It’s a contract dated October 21st, 62 A.D., a year after the revolt, which arranges for the transportation of “twenty loads of provisions” from Verulamium (modern-day St Albans, Hertfordshire) to London, a distance of about 25 miles, by November 13th.


Almost 100 proper names of individuals from various walks of life — emperors, soldiers, a brewer, a judge, a cooper, freedmen, slaves — have been identified in the tablets. The earliest residents of Roman London were primarily soldiers and businessmen, most of them originating from Gaul and the Rhineland. One significant name mentioned is that of Julius Classicus, a nobleman of the Belgic Treveri tribe, who would go on to become a leader of the Batavian revolt (69-70 A.D.) that broke out in the province of Germania Inferior after the assassination of the emperor Nero. A few years earlier, around 65 A.D., he was the prefect of the Sixth Cohort of Nervians, an auxiliary infantry cohort in London. One Julius Classicianus, in all likelihood a relative of Classicus’, was procurator of Britain from 61 to 65 A.D. so he probably pulled a few nepotism strings to give his kinsman the commission. Before this the earliest confirmed presence of the Sixth Nervians in Britain was 122 A.D. and they were known to have remained in the province until the end of the 4th century shortly before the Roman withdrawal in 410. Now we know they were there practically from the beginning too.


Another intriguing tablet doesn’t actually say anything. Dating to around 60-62 A.D., it’s just the last two lines of the alphabet, “ABCDIIFGHIKL / MNOPQRST.” A few letter are missing. This was probably writing practice, maybe even schoolwork. If it is, it would be the first evidence of Roman schooling discovered in Britain.

The tablets were cleaned and conserved using PEG, a waxy substance that replaces the water in saturated wood preventing it from drying and cracking. They were then freeze-dried for long-term conservation. The tablets will continue to be studied at MOLA. At least one of them, the earliest intrinsically dated tablet in Britain, will be part of the permanent public exhibition in the new Bloomberg building which will display more than 700 of the 10,000+ artifacts discovered in the excavation, plus the reconstructed London Mithraeum. It’s scheduled to open in fall of 2017.

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